News & Insight
June 2005

The Role of the Boss in Coaching

Ed McDougal

When I look back over more than a decade of coaching executives, I find there is a strong correlation between the success of the coaching assignment and the involvement of the boss in the process.

“Success” is defined by a sustained change in identified behaviors, such as time management, delegation, communication or dealing with difficult situations. If the identified behavior doesn’t change, or the executive regresses back to a former level after the coaching stops, then the process has not been successful.

There are five ways in which a boss can contribute to the success of coaching assignments:

  • Giving an informed assessment to the coach;
  • Providing feedback to the executive before coaching starts;
  • Creating an environment conducive to development and change;
  • Making observations and providing ongoing feedback to the executive during the coaching process; and
  • Sharing these ongoing observations with the coach.

Let’s look at the first two.

Giving an Informed Assessment to the Coach

The most successful coaching engagements begin when the boss gives the coach an informed assessment of the executive to be coached -- the specific behaviors that he or she would like to see the executive improve.

Communication is one of the most common areas of improvement. Some executives just don’t communicate enough; others need to work on their approach. They might be extremely harsh, critical or condescending. As a result, people tune them out.

When a boss sits down with an executive and says, “You’ve got a lot of good ideas, but I think you can be more effective at communicating them to others. I’d like to have a coach help you with that,” he or she provides an important foundation for the coaching assignment that follows by establishing an essential level of self-awareness with the executive.

In virtually all cases, the boss has witnessed the behavior firsthand. In addition, the boss understands the executive’s strengths, knows why the executive is an asset to the organization, and has a reason for investing coaching dollars in that asset. By sharing these insights with the coach, he provides a solid foundation for improvement.

Providing Feedback to the Executive Before Coaching Starts

Another critical role the boss can play in the developmental process is to provide feedback to the executive who is being coached. The key here, for the boss, is to ensure that the executive hears what the boss has to say.

Telling people they need to improve a certain aspect of their professional behavior is not an easy task; many bosses avoid it as long as possible. As a result, they don’t communicate as clearly as they should. I like to meet with the boss beforehand to help frame that conversation between the two of them because it’s so important to the success of the coaching process.

Good communication requires a transmitter and a receiver. Most bosses feel that their role is to be the perfect transmitter; what they really need to do is create the perfect receiver.

Let’s say an executive has three or four developmental opportunities – too many to work on at the same time. Instead of talking to the executive about all of these issues, I would advise the boss to select one or two, and couch them in a positive way so that the person can hear them better.

For example, suppose an executive is too wordy. Ask him what time it is and he tells you how to build a watch. If you were to tell him he’s a windbag, it’s pretty easy to become defensive around that. But if you said that 1) "weaknesses are strengths taken to excess", and 2) "sometimes you are too verbose because you are extremely enthusiastic", that’s a lot easier to accept because you’ve just paid a compliment. And you’re on your way to creating a perfect receiver.

Next issue: Creating an environment conducive to development and change.

Ed McDougal is a member of WJM Associates’ executive and organizational development faculty.

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